There’s fewer wines that excite such raging passions as Pinot Noir and in particular its home in Burgundy. It has an appeal and allure which can be beguiling. That grape has become a sort of zeitgeist, almost what Blue Nun was to the 70s or Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc was to the 00s. It is the shorthand for savoir-faire. It’s the type of wine that drew me in with its promise of sophistication and elegance.
In the right circumstances as in its native Burgundy, the wine can be ethereally light, silky or velvety in texture. It can have an aroma and taste of such depth that I’ve seen grown men shed a tear over it. Then come the arguments. The vanity of small differences between that site or another, that position or this, that producer doing one thing and this doing another. I can only imagine why in an industry where tastings began routinely at 10am there would be so many tears.
The vignerons of the Burgundy in cool Northern France, famously and seemingly unironically, like to call themselves humble farmers. How humble they can be with the market for their wines reaching ever dizzying heights is another question.
A case of the 2006 Romanée-Conti, Grand Cru from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti would set you back the princely sum of £135,000: or put another way 6 NHS Nurses’ yearly salary, with a little left over for a real knees up of a Christmas party. Some claim that Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of the Domaine, has remained humble, a mere “custodian.”
That wine can claim not just to be one of the world’s most expensive wines but also one of the best, located as it is in the heart of the fabled escarpment of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. The home of Pinot Noir and reasonably considered to produce the best examples of the grape. This hill runs in a sometimes moderate, sometimes steep incline from Dijon in the north towards Chalon-sur-Saone in the south, a distance of broadly 80kms.
The Burgundy Basics:
Each of the three sub regions of the Cote d’Or have their own points of difference, but only the Cotes de Nuits and Beaune form the true Cote d’Or. There the terraces may as well be paved with gold. The ridge follows an almost straight line keeping a southern and eastern aspect perfect for the ripening of grapes in those cool climes. It is almost as if the grapes themselves had shaped the geography for their own ends.
Further south in the Challonaise, both history and geography work against the wines. The slopes do not enjoy such a surreptitious aspect, and the vines haven’t received the same attention as their more famous neighbours. Though as those wines become ever more expensive that is changing.
Depending on geography and theoretically the quality of the wine it can labelled in a plethora of ways. The most basic are simply bottled as a Bourgogne and can offer a glimpse of what Pinot Noir can do with a cheering bright palate of summery fruits.
As you move up the vinous hierarchy, vines that occupy sites adjacent to the slope, perhaps in side valleys or on the flats, will produce a Cote de Beaune or Nuits Village, or an Hautes Cotes de Beaune or Nuits. These should represent more distinctly flavoured wines with a greater sense of the sub region’s character. Broadly a Beaune should be more silky and summery. A Nuits should be a richer, more velvety, and with a touch of darkness.
A Step Up:
These differences become apparent in the wines from specific villages of which there are the famous and the humble. Maranges, Pernard-Verglesses and Santenay in the Beaune, all have a lightness that is typical of their region. Marsannay and Fixin in the Nuits have a richness and a little more flesh in the palate.
When I worked for a time as a Wine Merchant it was these wines which I coveted for myself. Louis Latour make a Maranges, which had its velvety tannins softened by a smooth acidity with the crunchy fruit that is a characteristic of well-made Pinot Noir. The beautiful and bright cherries become a textural as much as a gustatory element. That wine in particular seemed to cast an incredible spell, not just over me but by anyone who tried it.
In the Beaune there are villages which have produced wines of a high reputation since the Cistercian monks established vines here. Volnay, Pommard, Beaune and Corton with their satellites produce wines that have a quality of dancing across the palate. Pommard always seems to have a wilder character. This is sometimes expressed as richness on the palate, sometimes an earthiness, sometimes an animal funk. Beaune, which I have been treating myself to in these locked down times, is always a safe bet for grown up wines.
North you have Nuits-St-George, which Sylvia Plath had such a memorable turn with in The Bell Jar. Other villages are Morey-St-Denis, Vosnee-Romanee, Chambertin and Musigny with their own satellites. These are rich, not necessarily heavy, but assertive and powerful. Chambertin after all was the wine that Napoleon planned on drinking inside the walls of the Kremlin.
In the old wine textbooks, and probably the mouths of old wine writers, Chambolle-Musigny with an always clear floral note used to be described as the most feminine of wines. Which, in the least, is a very lazily way of trying to capture the beauty of a wine that can at turns show the sun dappled rays breaking through a woodland in spring and as quick as another sip show that wood in the darkening days of autumn. Its floral fragrance and bright fruit followed by a warm earthiness, of brambles and foraged mushrooms.
In most of these villages the better sites are called 1er Cru and may have a named vineyard. In some of these there are then Grand Cru sites and within those single walled off monopoles, like the aforementioned Romanee-Conti. These wines tend to now fetch prices beyond ordinary mortals. I just hope the oligarchs enjoy them.
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